The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


  Richard's interest in Elizabeth of York was not purely sensual: he, too, had perceived the enormous advantages of a union with her. Henry Tudor's determination to marry her and claim the crown

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  through her, ignoring the provisions of 'Titulus Regius', could not have failed to bring these advantages to Richard's notice. If Henry could strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth, so could he, Richard, even if it meant reversing his own Act of Settlement and legitimising her. The King's determination to marry his niece is virtual proof, if any were needed, that the precontract story on which his title was based was pure invention. Had it been true, Richard would not now have been contemplating the marriage to strengthen his position. His pursuit of Elizabeth was not only a tacit acknowledgement of the widespread recognition of her as the rightful queen, but also amounted to confirmation that the Princes were dead. Marriage to her would crush Henry Tudor's pretensions once and for all, and it would hopefully silence the ever-present rumours about her brothers. It would stabilise Richard's tenure of the throne, enlist the Wydvilles on the side of the Crown, and in every way make sound political sense.

  It is clear from the evidence available that Elizabeth attracted the attentions of her uncle in a remarkably short time, and that by January 1485 this was apparent to observers at court. Croyland tells us that 'the Feast of the Nativity was kept with due solemnity at the Palace of Westminster and the King appeared with his crown on the day of the Epiphany' (6th January). Then a note of clerical disapproval creeps in:

  It must be mentioned that, during this Feast of the Nativity, immoderate and unseemly stress was laid upon dancing and festivity, vain changes of apparel of similar colour and shape being presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth, a thing that caused the people to murmur and the nobles and prelates greatly to wonder thereat. It was said by many that the King was bent, either on the anticipated death of the Queen taking place, or else by means of a divorce, for which he supposed he had quite sufficient grounds, on contracting a marriage with Elizabeth, whatever the cost, for it appeared that no other way could his kingly power be established or the hopes of his rival put an end to. There are also many other matters which are not in this book because it is shameful to speak of them.

  Croyland, writing in 1486, would not have committed to paper anything compromising about the new Queen of England, Elizabeth of

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  York. Instead, he would represent Richard III as the villain of the piece and, ever discreet, was probably implying in this last sentence there was more to the relationship between uncle and niece than political advantage. With the passage worded as it is it appears that the chronicler is trying to convey that there was already a sexual relationship of some nature. Croyland's reticence leads us to believe that there were more grounds for conjecture than just the similar gowns given by Richard to his wife and niece, for this by itself would hardly have provoked such disapproval. And Croyland's statement that Richard supposed he had sufficient grounds for divorce is indicative that the matter had already been discussed, perhaps in Council.

  Whilst the King 'was keeping this festival with remarkable splendour' in Westminster Hall and the court hummed with speculation, 'news was brought to him from his spies beyond the sea that, notwithstanding the potency and splendour of his royal estate, his adversaries would, without question, invade the kingdom during the following summer'. Richard answered that, 'than this, there was nothing that could befall him more desirable'.

  News of the coming invasion made the idea of marriage with his niece not only desirable but urgent, and in the days after the Epiphany the King's courtship became more ardent. Buck believed his desire was 'feigned', but most of the evidence is to the contrary and shows that he had every intention of making Elizabeth his wife as soon as he was free to do so. Croyland would later refer to Richard's 'incestuous passion' for her and throughout strongly implies that the King was motivated by passion as much as ambition. Molinet even alleged that Elizabeth bore a child by him, though there is no evidence for this, but it may well have been at this time that Richard gave Elizabeth his copy of The Romance of Tristan (now in the British Library), which bears not only his name but her motto and signature also: 'Sans remouyr, Elizabeth'. The book cannot have come into her possession later on because when she was queen she always signed herself 'Elizabeth ye Queen', while her usual signature before 1486 was 'Elizabeth Plantagenet'.

  Elizabeth was under considerable pressure from her mother and her half-brother Dorset to respond to the King's advances, but there is good evidence that this pressure was unnecessary and that she had already become emotionally involved. How she reconciled this with the fact that Richard had murdered her brothers is not known; the

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  simplest explanation must be that he somehow convinced her that he was innocent of the deed, a lie that a girl in the throes of infatuation would be only too willing to believe. The fact that she could contemplate such a marriage shows her to have been as much of a pragmatist as her mother and confirms that her ambition to wear a crown was greater than her grief for brothers who might never have been close to her.

  Croyland says that 'the King's determination to marry his niece reached the ears of his people, who wanted no such thing.' Vergil states that when Henry Tudor, in France, learned what was afoot, the news 'pinched him to the very stomach', and he was even more downcast when he heard that Richard proposed to marry Elizabeth's sister Cecily to an unknown knight so that Henry should be baulked of yet another Yorkist princess. The three youngest girls, Anne, Katherine and Bridget, were too young to be considered seriously as prospective brides, and while Elizabeth of York lived the dynastic claims of her sisters were secondary to hers anyway. Henry, in desperation, now made a bid to marry Maud Herbert, daughter of his former guardian, hoping thereby to enlist Welsh support for his cause, but Maud could not bring Henry a crown as her dowry and was therefore a poor substitute for the Yorkist heiress.

  Contrary to popular belief, at that time a marriage between uncle and niece was permitted by the church provided a dispensation was obtained beforehand. When Richard Ill's contemporaries condemned his intended marriage as unlawful and incestuous, it became clear that the path to wedded bliss would be littered with obstacles, though people anticipated that Richard would sweep these aside and have what he wanted. But, says the chronicler Hall, 'one thing withstood his desires. Anne, his queen, was still alive.'

  As the affair between Richard and Elizabeth progressed, so did Anne's illness. Croyland writes that a few days after Epiphany 'the Queen fell extremely sick, and her illness was supposed to have increased still more and more because the King entirely shunned her bed, claiming that it was by the advice of his physicians that he did so. Why enlarge?'

  The Queen's illness was terminal and was probably caused by either tuberculosis or cancer. It conveniently freed Richard from his marital obligations and left him with more opportunities to pursue Elizabeth.

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  Hall says that Anne, 'understanding that she was a burden to her husband, for grief soon became a burden to herself and wasted away'. Both Croyland and Hall agree that her condition was exacerbated by her husband's neglect and callousness, for he made it quite plain that she was of no further use to him and that he was just waiting for her to die. Hall adds that, even when he knew she was dying, Richard 'daily quarrelled' with her 'and complained of [her] for [being] barren'. Vergil says that, after abstaining from her bed, the King complained to Archbishop Rotherham about Anne's 'unfruitfulness', showing himself most distressed about it, and probably paving the way for an annulment if death should not intervene quickly enough. Rotherham was sympathetic but he tactlessly spread the word about that the Queen 'would suddenly depart from this world'. According to Vergil, Richard was also broadcasting the Queen's imminent demise and spreading rumours deliberately calculated to reach Anne's ears, so that she would, literally, be frightened to death.

  Sometime in Februa
ry 1485, when the Queen was dressing one day, one of her ladies told her there was a rumour in the court that she had died. Desperately afraid, and 'supposing that her days were at an end', Anne went straight to her husband, with her hair still unbound, and in tears 'demanded of him what cause there was why he should determine her death. He soothed her, saying, "Be of good cheer, for in sooth ye have no other cause."' Although Vergil recounted this story much later it is corroborated by Croyland who states that Richard used psychological means to hasten Anne's death, and is in keeping with the other evidence. It also, interestingly, shows that the Queen believed her husband to be capable of murder.

  Anne had good cause for believing that Richard desired to be rid of her, and was under no illusions about him waiting for her to die so that he could marry again and have more children. She may also have been aware of his adulterous designs on Elizabeth of York.

  Just how far this affair had progressed is made clear by Richard's Jacobean apologist, George Buck, who says that 'when the days of February were gone, the Lady Elizabeth, being very desirous to be married and growing impatient of delays, wrote a letter to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, intimating first that he was the one in whom she most affied [trusted], because she knew the King her father much loved him, and that he was a very faithful servant unto him and

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  to the King his brother, then reigning, and very loving and serviceable to King Edward's children. She prayed him, as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of the marriage to the King who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in this world, and that she was his in heart and in thought, in body and in all. And then she intimated that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die. And all these be her own words, written with her own hand, and this is the sum of her letter, whereof I have seen the autograph or original draft under her own hand.' Buck observed in conclusion that 'this young lady was inexpert in worldly affairs'.

  Unfortunately the letter no longer survives; Buck's report of its contents is the only version of it we now have. Buck stated he had seen the original, 'that princely letter', in the Earl of Arundel's 'rich and magnificent cabinet, among precious jewels and more monuments'. Arundel was one of Norfolk's descendants and Buck's patron, to whom Buck dedicated his history of Richard III, and it was with pride that he showed Buck this letter, a precious family heirloom. Over the years many writers have dismissed it as an invention by Buck, but it is hardly likely that he would have involved the Earl of Arundel in such a deception, nor made up something so open to disproof by the Earl. There was no reason why Buck should have invented the letter, which shows his hero, as well as Arundel's ancestor, in no very good light; nor would it have been politic to portray Elizabeth of York, through whom the then King, James I, derived his title, as an adulteress. Certainly no-one would have considered forging such a letter in Tudor times, when Elizabeth's son and grandchildren sat on the throne. Buck was diligent in his research and weighed his sources painstakingly. The text he quotes bears striking similarities to other letters written by high-born ladies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, especially one written by Cecily, Marchioness of Dorset, which contains the phrase, so similar to that in Elizabeth's letter, 'I have none help in the world but him only.' Nor was it unusual for women to write in such emotional terms, as the early letters of Katherine of Aragon bear witness. Moreover, the contents of the letter, as quoted by Buck, are corroborated by Croyland. It is only later Tudor sources such as Vergil and The Song of the Lady Bessy, that stress Elizabeth's aversion to the idea of marriage with Richard III. There is no reason, therefore, to dismiss this letter as an invention; on the contrary, it has all the

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  hallmarks of authenticity.

  Two versions of Buck's history exist, each with the letter worded differently. In 1646 Buck's nephew and namesake published a savagely abridged and inaccurate edition of his uncle's work, the only one available until 1979, when the eminent historian A.N. Kincaid produced a fine version faithful to Buck's original text. This second version, from which the above letter is quoted, shows two significant amendments to the 1646 text of it, which show that the nature of the relationship between Richard III and Elizabeth of York was far different from what historians had assumed up until 1979.

  Firstly, the 1646 edition states that Elizabeth required Norfolk to be a mediator 'to the King in respect of the marriage propounded between them', which led many writers mistakenly to conclude that Richard was an unwilling participant in the affair and that his feigned pursuit of his niece was only a ploy to discountenance Henry Tudor. Buck's original text actually reads that Elizabeth prayed Norfolk, 'as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of the marriage to the King', and does not specify with whom he was to mediate: because of her previous request, Elizabeth assumes that Howard will know to whom she is referring. Clearly it is not the King, for the letter is proof that her feelings were very much reciprocated, as Croyland confirms; it was likely to have been either one of several prominent doctors of divinity and canon law whom we know were summoned by the Council to pronounce on the feasibility of a dispensation, or one of the councillors close to the King who were known to be violently opposed to the marriage, seeing it conflicting with their own interests. Elizabeth was hoping to put pressure on these men and thereby ensure a happy outcome.

  The second amendment concerns the intimate nature of her relationship with the King, and indicates that Elizabeth was already a willing partner in an adulterous liaison. In the 1646 version she states that 'she was his in heart and thought', but the original text shows 'that she was his in heart and thought, in body and in all', proof that the relationship was a sexual one. It was not unusual then for couples to live together quite honourably on the strength of a formal promise to wed followed by sexual intercourse, but in this case Richard had a wife still living and that arrangement could not apply. Elizabeth's relationship with him was at best adultery. Her telling comment that Richard was her 'only

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  joy and maker in this world' implies that she was otherwise at a very low ebb, which is understandable considering how circumscribed her life had been during the previous two years. Maybe the stigma of bastardy had caused her to lose sight of her own worth. Whatever the reason for her surrender, it had brought her both joy and pain, and now she was so deeply involved that she could view the continuing existence of Richard's sick wife as no more than an obstacle to her own future happiness and the fulfilment of her ambitions.

  Anne was now very ill indeed. It is possible that the King, spurred on by his dynastic ambitions, his passion for his niece, and the knowledge that Henry Tudor would invade in the summer, took steps to hasten her end. The man who had murdered two children would not have hesitated to dispose of an ailing and unwanted wife, especially when she was known to be dying anyway and there was little chance of anyone proving his guilt.

  On 16th March, 1485, Anne died during a great eclipse of the sun. Nine days later she was buried in Westminster Abbey, says Croyland, 'with no less honour than befitted the interment of a queen' in an unmarked grave in front of the sedilia by the ancient tomb of Sebert, King of the East Saxons. Croyland says her husband wept openly by her grave.

  But London was vocal with rumours. The Acts of Court of the Mercers Company record that there was 'much simple communication among the people, by evil-disposed persons, showing how that the Queen, as by consent and will of the King, was poisoned, for and to the intent that he might then marry and have to wife Lady Elizabeth'. The Great Chronicle of London states there was 'much whispering among the people that the King had poisoned the Queen his wife, and intended with a licence purchased to have married the eldest daughter of King Edward'. It goes on to say that even the King's northern stalwarts, 'in whom he placed great reliance', willingly imputed 'to him the death of the Queen', and there was much 'whispering of poison' among them. These are authentic reports of rumours circulating at the time of the
Queen's death; given his previous notoriety, people had no difficulty in believing that Richard had murdered his wife. Later allegations of poison were therefore based on what was regarded as credible at the time and not on so-called Tudor propaganda.

  John Rous, who devotedly chronicled all the deeds of the Neville

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  family, believed the rumours: 'Lady Anne, his queen, he poisoned,' he wrote. Commines, in France, heard the rumours and later recorded how 'some said he had her killed'. The Song of the Lady Bessy also alleges that Richard poisoned and 'put away' his wife. Vergil, having heard how he had tried to hound her to death by other means, wrote: 'But the Queen, whether she was despatched by sorrowfulness or poison, died.' And Edward Hall, years later, stated: 'Some think she went her own pace to the grave, while others suspect a grain was given her to quicken her in her journey to her long home.'

  After Anne's death, says Croyland, Richard's 'countenance was always drawn'. More tells us that a mutual acquaintance told him that, from this time onwards, the King 'was never quiet in his mind, never thought himself secure, his hand ever on his dagger. He took ill rest at nights.' He was now more hated and distrusted by his subjects than ever before, and had alienated most of the nobility and gentry. His courtiers found his dogged attention to business tedious; he had the reputation of being over-meticulous and some, such as Sir William Stanley, disparagingly referred to him as 'Old Dick' behind his back. The majority of his contemporaries regarded him as a treacherous hypocrite of whom they were wise to be fearful.

 
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